Edinburgh in Film

Seminar Paper, 2001

22 Pages, Grade: 2,3 (B)


Table of Contents


1. The Edinburgh Film Guild

2. The Edinburgh Film Festival

3. Screening Scotland

4. A Tale of two Cities

5. References


The following pages form the first part of my essay on Edinburgh in Film.

In the first two chapters, two major film institutions which played an important role in the history of film in Edinburgh shall be introduced. Their importance for the development of film will be pointed out clearly.

The third chapter will then deal with the question of how Scotland was portrayed and the reasons for that. To answer this question, the main influences on the depiction of Scotland will be described. The third chapter will subsequently end by describing how the Scots themselves wanted to depict their country and culture.

In presenting famous films and musicals in the final chapter, dualities of Edinburgh and Scotland and their stimulus for productions in and around Scotland shall be depicted.

1. The Edinburgh Film Guild

One of the most important organisations concerning the history of film in Edinburgh is the Edinburgh Film Guild, formed in 1930 by Norman Wilson and Forsyth Hardy. It constitutes the oldest continuing film society in the UK and possibly in the whole world. The greatest achievement of the Guild was establishing the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1947. In those days, the Film Guild was based in Hill Street and had almost two and a half thousand members and therefore was the largest film society in the country.

Besides the Guild, Norman Wilson and Forsyth Hardy, founded the influential international magazine of film critics Cinema Quarterly in 1930.

The existence of the Edinburgh Film Guild was crucial to the establishment of the “Regional Film Theatre” for Edinburgh, in Randolph Crescent, and played a major part in its move to the present premises in Lothian Road. Despite the great competition through alternative means of access to movies, the Guild kept on flourishing.

2. The Edinburgh Film Festival

The Edinburgh Film Festival came into being in 1947 as the first International Festival of Documentary Film and the first Film Festival after the Second World War. At that time only four separate programmes existed which were organised by the co-operation of UNESCO and John Grierson, a consultant of Mass Media.

Nevertheless more than twenty feature films were shown in Edinburgh’s cinema (such as: The Brothers, The Silver Darlings, A Matter of Life and Death and Les Enfants du Paris). The films of the Edinburgh Festival lead to a breakthrough. For the first time the Medium film was accepted as a part of the international festival of arts, the world’s largest arts celebration with the “Fringe”, the “Tattoo” and many other events.

One of the greatest achievements of the Film Festival was that it attracted foreign producers to Edinburgh and thus introduced and imported films to Scotland, as at that time it had not produced any major films itself. The situation of Scottish film production, however, continued to improve through better structures and opportunities.

Furthermore, the Film Festival represented a meeting place for professionals. Important connections were made which lead to famous productions, like Rob Roy, which emerged from the meeting of producer Peter Brougham and the director Michael Caton-Jones in 1993.

Rob Roy is set two years before the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion. It recounts the story of a former thief who comes into conflict with the devious Duke of Montrose (John Hurt) and is forced to take refuge in the hills. The focal point is the perfidious character of the Englishman, Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth), who is also a dangerous swordsman. With the connivance of Montrose’s factor, Cunningham steals the £ 1,000 loan, which was provided to Rob by Montrose, then brutally rapes Mary before destroying the homestead of Rob Roy MacGregor. Rob finally takes revenge in a dramatic confrontation with Cunningham.

The character of the Film Festival has changed considerably, from an association of voluntary work, to a fully professional operation with high incomes.

3. Screening Scotland

What is the picture we have of Scotland and where does it come from?

Is it not the wild, mountainous, picturesque country north of England, famous for its historic castles, dark and foggy moors, lochs, Highlands and Lowlands, inhabited by kilted, rough but hearty, whisky drinking and haggis-eating Scotsmen playing the bagpipes?

Images of countries, their culture and people are formed for every place in the world. Amongst other factors, these images are based upon historical events, politics and culture, including famous thinkers, writers, painters and not to forget, actors. These images are spread by multifaceted ways. One of the most meaningful and also extensive examples of a country’s culture and people, is film.

Scotland has always been a place of great attraction to producers from the continent or America. In 1953 the Hollywood producer Arthur Freed, for example, travelled to Scotland in search for a typical Scottish Highland village for his film Brigadoon (1954).

Brigadoon portrays Scotland as a legendary country. It is a tale of a mythical village in the Highlands that comes to life for only one day in every century. Freed expected to find a place which included all the typical pictures one would have about Scotland. Forsyth Hardy, who is the most important Scottish film producer and director, as well as founder of the Scottish documentary and greatest initiator of Scottish productions, showed Freed Culross on the Firth of Forth, Comrie, Braemar and Inverary on the head of Loch Fyne. However none of these places could fulfil Freed’s expectations.

‘I went to Scotland but I could find nothing that looked like Scotland.’[1]

So, he went home to America and shot Brigadoon in a studio which was decorated the way an American audience would want to see Scotland and had an American cast. This is just one of many examples, where Scotland was not chosen as the actual location for shootings; therefore being so- called fake “Scottish” films, with fake “Scottish” actors.

The reason for such a cliched foreign view can be found in Scottish literature. Novels and ballads by Sir Walter Scott[2], for example, were read in European schools and translated into many exotic languages. 19th century painting was also influenced by his scenic portrayal of real and imagined conflicts in Scottish history and his interpretation of the Scottish story was eternalised in many films which are based on his novels.

Other authors who had a great impact on the depiction of Scotland are Robert Burns and James Matthew Barrie.

Another major influence, on a stereotypical Scotland, was exerted by the painter Sir Edwin Landseer, who became famous for his drawings of stag and steer on misty hills, and also by David Allan and Sir David Wilkie.

As well as literature and art, music halls of the 1920s and 1930s played an important role in the presentation of Scotland. Whilst the productions of that time received great approval overseas and also in Scotland itself, many Scots negatively saw these as a caricature of their people and culture.

But what kind of Scotland did the Scots want to project?

It should not be a retrospective, idealised picture of Scotland, based upon history or literature, but should rather demonstrate modern-day Scotland, showing the life of people in cities and in the country. The picture of Scotland can not always be bright and rosy if, for example, you have a closer look at the economic situation. It should rather catch the eternal warmth and pulse of Scottish streets, landscapes and people. This pulse and energy was being discovered more and more by film-makers also in Edinburgh, where an amateur film called The Singing Street described the Scottish character in detail.

Scottish film production established independence and thus started to make its own grand films. This development occurred, despite all the effects mentioned, and despite the fact that it was inhibited for a long time by the centralisation of British and American film-makers.

4. A Tale of two Cities

Although Scotland was portrayed as being wild and rural, it was, in fact, by 1911 the most urbanised country in the world after England. By 1951 two-thirds of the overall population lived in towns with about 5,000 inhabitants and 42% in cities with about 50,000 inhabitants.

Edinburgh was one of the world’s most important cities in regard to early science and humanities. As well as this, Edinburgh is renowned on the one hand for its Gothic and bourgeois character and on the other for its dark and macabre world of terror and criminality.

One author who should be mentioned at this point is Robert Louis Stevenson[3]. He had a great influence on the cinematic depiction of Scotland and was particularly inspired by the idea of the double. His most enduring formulations of duality is expressed in his novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), which was filmed in 1931 by Paramount. His novel is based upon the story of Deacon Brodie, a respectable Edinburgh cabinet-maker who lived a double life and who was hanged in 1788 because of robbery. The topography of Edinburgh’s old town was an ideal setting for Brodie’s nightly haunts.


[1] Quotation by Arthur Freed

Hardy, Forsyth; Scotland in Film (page 1), Edinburgh University Press, 1990

[2] Scottish Novelist (1771-1832); *15.8.1771 (Edinburgh), † 21.9.1832

Scott created and popularised historical novels in a series called “Waverley Novels” and was influenced by 18th century enlightenment. One major theme in his novels was tolerance and the conflicts between different cultures. His works: Invanhoe (1791), Talisman (1825), Old Mortality (1861), The Heart of Midlothian (1819), St. Ronan’s Well (1824), Rob Roy (1817), Legend of Montrose (1819), Quentin Dunward (1823).

[3] Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson; * Edinburgh 13.11.1850, † 3.12.1894

He studied law at Edinburgh University but later decided to become a writer. Stevenson became afflicted with a severe respiratory illness from which he suffered for the rest of his life. Some of his numerous writings include: The Pentland Rising (1866), An Inland Voyage (1878), The Silverado Squatters (1883), Treasure Island (1883), Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Kidnapped (1886).

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Edinburgh in Film
Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh  (Department of Applied Languages & Interpreting)
British Culture & Society
2,3 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
497 KB
Two part essay.
Edinburgh, Film, British, Culture, Society
Quote paper
Sina Friedreich (Author), 2001, Edinburgh in Film, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/16751


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